Monday, September 17, 2007

2007. SINZASA and Nottingham Avenue Baker, Christchurch NZ, 1997

On 25/03/1997, SA expats met at Roydvale Scout Hall and formed SINZASA, the South Island NZ Association of Southern Africans. Expats had met in immigrants' homes and had Xmas functions in parks. SINZASA's mission statement: "To bring together like-minded Southern Africans in order to become good immigrants contributing to NZ..." (SINZASA Constitution, 1997). A committee was elected, and functions were organized. Indaba journal was published, and some Indaba articles I submitted, critical of apartheid, were either censored or ignored by editors with Afrikaner surnames.

During early years, SINZASA had strong ZIMCARE contributors, when white and black Zimbabwians immigrated, before and after Mugabe's white farm confiscations. By 2006, there were about 600 expat families on the South Island, 45% of which were Afrikaners, some of whom liked 1950s Dutch immigrants and their Dutch Reformed kerk.

In 1990, Moore's defeated Labour government left Bolger's National government with a huge deficit. Bolger's National government continued reforms begun by Lange's labour government. From 1991, unions were weakened by the Employment Contracts Act, and working days lost due to industrial action were reduced. (Jim Bolger, Bolger, A View From The Top, Penguin, Auckland, Viking, 1998). National government overreacted to unions by perpetuating a structurally violent labour system in the nineties competing job seekers, beneficiaries and immigrants, like us, for low paid jobs.

Job application forms I posted from Nottingham Avenue were justified by employers for statistical purposes and for screening applicants with criminal convictions. Questions included: 1. Criminal convictions? 2. Disabilities affecting performance? It placed me at the bottom of job applicant piles. 3. Country of origin? This race question often listed Pacific Islands. The forms helped personnel clerks too lazy to read CVs, and discriminated against rehabilitated felons, the disabled and foreigners. For NZ priding itself on EEO and merit, the crime / disability / homeland form was strange.

NZ Immigration Service (NZIS) wanted healthy, wealthy, highly qualified professional immigrants. Employers wanted them also, but also wanted to pay them low wages. As NZ had degreed immigrants doing labouring jobs, if the National government wanted cheap -labour, then NZIS should've immigrated more than the 750 annual quota refugees, rather than giving residence to investor, business category immigrants, or paying immigrants, like us, who couldn't find jobs suitable for our sometimes superior overseas educations and work experiences. In later years, there'd be media reports of cheap -labour, foreign fruit-pickers working illegally in the Nelson - Marlborough district, and shonky labour contractors bleating how tough it was to find good pickers. There'd be a plethora of pickers if employers paid good wages.

In 1997, I worked at a cookie bakery which employed 50 contracted workers: Maori, Cambodians, Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Pakeha, me. Bakery staff were mainly hourly-paid immigrant workers, like me. Work began at 04:00 or 05:00, sometimes ending late at night, depending on production needs. Office staff were mainly aloof Pakeha and a token Cambodian office lady. Office workers' hours were shorter.

I signed a two week probationary contract to mop floors and wash hundreds of plastic butter-buckets, giant food-mixing implements, and big plastic tubs, sludgy with leftover ingredients. Workers wore blue overalls and white T shirts, which were laundered once a week. Workers had to wear white hairnets. White latex gloves were optional. Workers wore their own dirty work-boots or stinky trainers.

I worked at the cookie-bar cutter-machine in the most hazardous spot, between two series of high-speed circular-saws arranged at right angles. Flat slabs of baked material were pushed by a Tongan into the first blade-series, which cut slabs into long cookie-bars, which I pushed through the second blade series to Cambodians, who stacked the smaller cookie-bars on pallets. Cookie crumbs sprayed all over us.

Cookie-bars sometimes jammed the saws, under inadequate covers of the badly designed machine. If I'd stretched my fingers under the covers they would've been shredded. Goggles and earmuffs weren't supplied. Once, when I scraped sludge from a "protection cover," blades flung my metal scraper past the shocked Tongan. Cambodian Wang pressed the red emergency button saying, "Whatcha doin' eh Mak?"

"Blades nearly killed me." Wang found the shredded metal scraper far from the machine and metal splinters on the floor. My shoulder was wrenched. No one said anything about ACC, or seeing a Quack for a checkup.

After cutting, I cleaned the machine, then trolleyed drums of waste to a concrete-pad outside the in-goods warehouse.

I began work at 05:00 each morning. My pay included two daily fifteen minute smokos, but not staggered lunch-hour breaks. I was paid time-and-a-half for my 23 hours overtime over my 40 hour week. My first week's pay was NZ$8/hour, grossing NZ$596, netting NZ$500 for 63 hours work, excluding lunch hours and commuting times to / from the bakery, which was 10 kays from Nottingham Avenue. It was the highest week's wage I'd get in my first 13 years' NZ residence. I explained to production manager Crumbles that I had OOS. Crumbles, scared I'd make an ACC claim, offered me storeman work at NZ$8.75/hour.

Income Support's Gosling wrote: "As you have worked more than 30 hours per week... you are considered to be in full-time work and as such no unemployment benefit is payable." (NZ Income Support letter July 1997). My cookie wage couldn't support my family, and I'd see scores of those dole form-letters over the years. Gosling's job was to get me off the dole. When I asked her if she had a quota of beneficiaries to get off the dole, she denied quotas. Our SA settling-in funds, subsidizing my wage, were diminishing. The 1991 Employment Contracts Act had much to answer for.

Copyright Mark JS Esslemont.

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